Reggie Wayne showed up after all.
Just nine days after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL, Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne was in Houston to support his Colts as they faced the division rival Texans. It was an incredibly odd sight - Wayne's streak of 189 games played in a row came to an end and it was the first time the Texans had ever played the Colts without Reggie Wayne on the field. He couldn't stay away completely, however, as he flew in the day before and surprised the team at their hotel the night before the game, with only head coach Chuck Pagano being aware of Wayne's arrival. He was on the sidelines before the game, and he was out on the field with the captains for the coin toss - even winning it for the Colts.
Unfortunately, however, that was the only time he was on the field for the night, and that will continue to be the case for the rest of the year. We talked about what the Colts were losing when they lost Reggie Wayne - they were losing close to 30% of their receiving production. Even more so, we talked about how Andrew Luck's stats drop off significantly without Reggie - in his career so far, on the 7.8% of the plays that Reggie is off the field his completion percentage is 32.8 points lower than with Reggie on the field, his yards per attempt drops by 4.1 yards and his QBR drops 51 points, from 69 to 18. But we knew all of that before we even saw the Colts have to play a whole game without Reggie on the field - after all, Andrew Luck had played 92.2 percent of his snaps with number 87 on the field with him. But what did the Colts' offense actually look like without Reggie?
To find out the answer to that, I went back and watched the film to see better analyze what the Colts look like without Reggie, and more importantly offer ways the Colts can compensate for the loss after seeing them play 60 minutes without the Pro Bowl receiver.
First off, we'll start by a general analysis of how the offense did on Sunday night.
A Look at the Colts Offense vs. the Texans:
Depending on when you turned the game on (or off), you could have incredibly different opinions of the Colts offense Sunday night. If you turned the game on late, you would have been incredibly impressed at seeing the Colts score 24 points in a span of just four possessions. If you turned the game off early (which many did), you would have been incredibly disgusted by what you saw, seeing the Colts unable to do anything on offense and looking terrible at doing so. As you can imagine, then, looking at the entire game is a mixed bag. Overall, I'd categorize the offense more in the terrible category, with Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton masking over a lot of the problems. Let's look at the positions and see how they did individually on Sunday:
If you want a more detailed evaluation of Andrew Luck at quarterback, I'd suggest you read my weekly Andrew Luck recap, posted on Wednesday mornings. But I'll summarize Luck's performance for you here. He was good but not great, making spectacular plays but also making surprising plays that were uncharacteristic of the Andrew Luck we have come to expect. He made plenty of what I have come to call "WOW" plays (creative, I know) - which is basically those plays that make your jaw-drop and tweet something incredibly positive about how good Andrew Luck is and about how good it is for the Colts and/or NFL. He makes them every game, and that was certainly true this game too. The first touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton on a corner route? Yeah, that was perfect. The second touchdown pass, a bomb to Hilton? Even more perfect. The two-point conversion pass to Coby Fleener? The most perfect of all of them. But, unlike Luck, he also left a ton of plays on the field (see picture below of a compilation of several open receivers, all but one of whom he didn't see - the red circle on two of them shows the receiver Luck actually threw to, on one of he indeed threw to one of the open guys and on the other he had his pass batted at the line later on in the play). He missed open receivers and misfired on throws to others. Overall, Luck's game was a mixed game as well but was more good than bad because when the stage was biggest he stepped up his play to a tremendous level and hit the throws that he needed to.
Trent Richardson had been much maligned because he was only averaging 3 yards per carry entering the game. Well, against the Texans he averaged just 2.5 yards per carry on 8 carries. Once again, the offensive line didn't help him out much at all, but the positive here is that Pep Hamilton's play calls seemed to improve (last week I suggested mixing it up and getting Richardson a few outside carries mixed in with the inside runs, and Pep did that better this week. On one particular two-play sequence, the Colts pitched left to Richardson for 7 yards and the next play gave it to him up the middle for 4 yards, notching the first down. Great job. Hamilton improved this game, and that is an encouraging sign). I've given Richardson a lot of passes because of the line and the play calling. And while the play calling was improved, the line wasn't, so I'm still inclined to give him a pass. But at the same time, he just continues to leave plays on the field and do himself no favors. Consider the following play, for example (see picture below). The play appears designed as a run to the right, but there is obviously no hole there. There is, however, a big hole on the left side, with just one linebacker there (still not ideal but a much better bet than the right side, especially since the linebacker is moving right with the play). Richardson runs right into the line on the right side before trying to cut it back left and trying to hit the hole. Way too late, and Richardson is stopped. Would the play have been a huge gain if he had cut it back? I don't know, and quite possibly still not. But it was a better option than the one Richardson choose and he was late at cutting back trying to hit it.
For all the Trent Richardson talk, however, there is always Donald Brown to talk about. He has rejuvenated his career this year and continues to excel. On 6 carries Brown gained 49 yards, averaging 8.2 yards per carry, including a 24 yard scamper. Brown was tremendous on Sunday night. One last thing, however, and it deals with why the Colts aren't starting Brown over Richardson at this point. There are many reasons for this, including but not limited to the fact that they absolutely cannot give up at Richardson on this point (that would be beyond dumb) and the fact that the reason Brown is doing so well this year is because of a more limited role. So no, that would not be smart. What would be smart, however, is appreciating what Brown does indeed bring to the offense now.
Wide Receiver (and receiving by Running Backs and Tight Ends):
Darrius Heyward-Bey were the two starting wideouts for the Colts, and one of them stepped up while the other one did not. DHB was thrown to 6 times... and managed just 1 catch. He did draw a 46-yard pass interference call, which is as good as a completion, but other than that he didn't do much at all, eventually leaving the game with an injury and not returning (Chuck Pagano said it was not a concussion but that he was held out as a precaution). T.Y. Hilton, however, did step up in a big way, catching 7 passes (career high) for 121 yards (third highest total of his career) and 3 touchdowns (career high).
The other receivers followed more in the suit of DHB in not stepping up to the occasion. Griff Whalen saw a ton of action, which was rather unexpected, but he ended up with the second most snaps, targets, and catches of any Colts receiver Sunday night (all behind only Hilton, of course). That said, he only caught 3 of 9 targets, and he dropped 3 passes as well (I'm not sure what the "official" stat book would say about drops, but I gave him three upon further review). LaVon Brazill came into the game largely later on and was targeted twice, catching one pass for 9 yards, but he was very quiet overall. So was David Reed, who wasn't even thrown to much and played sparingly.
Coby Fleener was good, catching 3 passes for 64 yards on 5 targets, and he hauled in a huge 44 yard gain on the first play of the game for the Colts offense. He averaged 21.4 yards per catch and was in fact the only Colt targeted more than twice to not drop a pass.
Trent Richardson was a bright spot in the passing game and proved that he needs to be more involved, catching 2 passes for 33 yards, including a screen pass that he took for 24. Stanley Havili was the only Colt to catch 100% of his targets, hauling in 1 catch for 1 yard. Donald Brown was targeted twice but did not make a catch - although he did drop one.
Overall, this was a very underwhelming performance by the receiving core. The two biggest problems were the drops and then failure to create separation. Here's a table of the drops I charted as I reviewed the game, and I counted 7 total for the team. That's way too many, or in other words, 15.9% of all Andrew Luck dropbacks ended in drops and 17.5% of all Andrew Luck pass attempts ended in drops.
So the issue of drops is a huge one for the Colts, but so is another area that is harder to quantify: the inability to create separation. Now, first off, yes the Colts had several guys wide open on Sunday night. Several. But almost always that was due to a blown defensive assignment or coverage and not because of the receiver. On the plays where the defenders simply did what their assigned role was (regardless of how well they actually played it), the Colts receivers struggled mightily to create separation and get open. Perhaps the most obvious of them was Griff Whalen, who has potential but who showed his limitations on Sunday night. He was often blanketed by the defender because he simply was unable to get away. I chalk it up to both route running and speed, as he needs to come out of his cuts quicker and then just doesn't have the speed to outrun guys. The Colts need to compensate for this and not just keep doing what they did Sunday night with Whalen. The one route that stood out as truly phenomenal was T.Y. Hilton on the comeback route. The Colts ran that a few times and Hilton consistently had space and was open on this route. The reasoning is simple, and that is because Hilton goes deep on "go" routes often enough and is a huge threat on those routes that when Hilton takes off running straight like that, the defense automatically goes to defending the "go" route. When Hilton cuts it off and pivots for a comeback route, the defender is left reeling and it leaves Hilton open for the reception and sometimes more. The Colts need to utilize that more often, and use DHB in that capacity more often. Most important, however, is realizing that it's effectiveness is largely because of other routes that set it up.
Offensive Line (and blocking by Running Backs and Tight Ends):
The offensive line was overwhelmed. Completely overwhelmed. J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith gave the line nightmares all night long. Right guard Mike McGlynn looked bad. Left guard Hugh Thornton looked bad. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus looked bad. Center Samson Satele looked bad. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo looked the least bad of all of them and still didn't look good. But especially McGlynn, Thornton, and Cherilus stood out to me as being overwhelmed and often beat. The final product was the worst protection that Andrew Luck has had in a long time, at least this season, and the line was the root of a lot of the problems on offense Sunday night. It doesn't help when Trent Richardson, usually very good in pass protection, whiffs on a block (see first picture) or when the line lets J.J. Watt - the league's best defensive player - run unblocked at Luck (see second picture). Yeah, it was a struggle all night long for an offensive line that was completely overwhelmed by the duo of Watt and Smith.
How Much of an Effect was Not Having Reggie Wayne on the Offense?
So we've looked at how the offense did in general. That type of analysis can be made independent of any other factors and could have been made for any other game this season as well. But we want to get beneath that analysis and look at how much of it was affected by not having Reggie Wayne on the field. I noticed five major areas where the loss of Reggie Wayne had a big impact on the Colts' offense on Sunday night (in no particular order):
1. Not Having Reggie Wayne Left the Offensive Line More Exposed
This was an underrated part that nobody thought about, and I know that I sure didn't. But I think that there is a really strong possibility that Reggie Wayne helped to mask the offensive line struggles than we thought. Yeah, we've given Luck a lot of credit for that (and absolutely deservedly so) but Reggie Wayne deserves some credit too. He would make adjustments during the play to help out his quarterback. He would break off a route early, extend it longer, or read the defense right away and adjust. The younger receivers just aren't there yet, and we saw Sunday night what a luxury it was for Luck to have Reggie Wayne doing that.
2. Not Having Reggie Wayne Left Andrew Luck without his Most Reliable Target
On third downs and crucial situations, Reggie Wayne was the go-to guy. More than that, Reggie Wayne was the guy Andrew Luck went to when he was in trouble. And that was certainly the case on Sunday night, with Luck being constantly under duress and with his receivers dropping passes, Luck could have used Reggie more than ever. Sure, Reggie Wayne actually dropped his share of passes this year, but he was undoubtedly the Colts' most reliable and consistent receiver.
3. Not Having Reggie Wayne Left the Offense without it's Best Route Runner
I already mentioned that the receivers struggled to create separation, and that made us much more aware of how good Reggie Wayne was at it. Widely regarded as the league's best route runner, Wayne was able to create separation and make plays because of it. Wayne was the type of receiver that through precise route running could get open because the defender never knew where he was going to go. The Colts don't have a guy good enough at route running that he can create separation or get open in that way now with Reggie out.
4. Not Having Reggie Wayne Left more Defenders to Cover the Other Receivers
This one wasn't as big of an issue Sunday night but will absolutely be a huge issue going forward. Without Reggie Wayne on the field, the defense didn't have number 87 to double cover which left the defense with the ability to cover other guys better. Going forward, I expect defenses to begin to double cover T.Y. Hilton, which will mean that Hilton will have a much tougher task and that someone else is going to need to step up too. When Wayne was double covered, it was Hilton. With Hilton double covered, who will it be?
5. Not Having Reggie Wayne Left Andrew Luck to Go Through His Progressions More
This one actually should be viewed as a positive, although for the short term it will be a negative. Before, Luck always had Reggie Wayne to go to if he needed, and he knew Reggie would be open to make the play. Now, he doesn't have that, so he is going to need to go through his progressions more. This was rather frustrating Sunday night, as Luck would often miss open guys or stare down others. It was so unlike Luck, and it was clear that not having Reggie Wayne there put more pressure on him to find an open guy. Going forward, it will force Luck to make better reads and go through his progressions more since he will not have Reggie Wayne as his security blanket, and long term that will be a good thing. But for the short term, it could lead to some more frustrating moments yet to come.
What Can the Colts Do to Improve Going Forward?
Going forward, the Colts have no choice but to compensate for the loss of Reggie Wayne. They are a legitimate Super Bowl contender and there are no excuses. It won't be easy, however, and it is impossible to replace his production or influence. The hole will be there regardless, but the Colts need to cover up that hole as best as possible and create a situation where they can still play well, score, and win. Here are my suggestions on how to make that happen:
1. Continue to utilize T.Y. Hilton on the comeback routes, set up by the "go" routes.
2. Get Griff Whalen in space based on play design and not based on his ability to get open (example: shorter routes, clear out routes that take the defenders away from him, etc.)
3. Utilize Trent Richardson in the passing game much more often.
4. Don't give up on DHB but rather continue to get him the ball in situations where he can run with it (screens, slants, etc.) as well as throwing the deep ball to him at times as well.
5. Take the play the defense is giving you. Way too often Andrew Luck threw a mid-range route to a heavily covered guy when he had an underneath guy wide open. Luck and the Colts need to take what the defense is giving them and if that means running a dink and dunk offense down the field, then they need to realize that is perfectly fine.
6. Andrew Luck has the opportunity to create and prolong plays with his legs, and he needs to continue to do so. This can both buy time for receivers to get open (seeing as this receiving core will require just a bit longer to do so) and get yards and keep the defense honest by keeping it himself.
The Colts can overcome the loss of Reggie Wayne. Sunday night was rough, but the positive is that now they have it on film what the weaknesses were without Reggie instead of just speculating. It is up to the coaches and players to take advantage of that and create situations to succeed in. They can compensate for the loss of Reggie Wayne, but it'll take work. We'll soon find out whether the Colts are up to the challenge.